White covered everything leaving only the faintest trace of what lay beneath. Winter had come and it was glorious. The snows had fallen heavy and deep blanketing the harshness that had been autumns touch. No longer could you see Mothers precious life withering away and dying, all you could see was winters white mask and this coming, she was even more beautiful than before.
We had waited for Mother to show us the first signs of her child’s approach, as the time was nearing to welcome her here. A time where we would gather and celebrate what the ancestors before us and our elders now called ‘The Giving’. The giving back to Mother so she could be nourished in this time of much needed rest.
The people set about their duties in preparation for the celebrations ahead the men preparing the stock for slaughter, some hunting the few delicacies that had not yet gone to ground. The women singing and sewing preparing the costumes and decorations that would adorn almost every tree and every house, children laughed and played and ran about with squeals of delight.
Yes, Winter was upon us and this year we would rejoice.
I remember when I was a child and the old woman from the House of Ralnook would tell stories of winters many masks. She would say, “Not all the time would she wear the same face, no-no, sometimes she would wear the face of a man so beautiful if you were fool enough to be out in the cold, he would claim you as his lover. So long ago it was when I nearly became his betrothed, so long ago, yet hear his voice I still do.”
The stories she would tell us would both frighten and amaze me that when I slept I could hear him calling out to me in my dreams, begging me to come to him and then crying because I would not. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, it was simply because I didn’t know which direction to go.
In my dreams I would be outside with nothing on but my night dress, my hair whipping around my face and shoulders stinging my flesh. The wind would be howling at the top of its lungs crashing into buildings letting us know that it was here. And all the while I could his voice pleading with me to come to him. I would never feel the cold yet my breath was a stream of white mist issuing from my lips.
“Where are you?”.
“Senaleth, come to me Senaleth. Be with me”.
“Please. . . where are you?”
And then the crying, always the crying. It would burn a hole in my heart hearing his whimpering and then his wailing, carried on the wind to my ears. My heart would ache at the very sound. “Please. . .tell me where you are?”
Yes, the dreams always the same. And each time I awoke, tears would stain my face and my heart would feel a loss that could rival any man’s and his dying son. It was a loss so deep, that I could hardly breathe and many times I felt as if my lungs were being crushed by an invisible force. It was the profound loss of my beloved.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The day of celebration was here. Everyone had risen early to prepare for the day and night ahead. There was to be feasting, drinking, dancing and singing. The sounds of the women laughing as they busied themselves with setting tables and laying out food, brew-masters rolled in huge barrels of their finest mead, bellowing orders and shouting at the brew-hands to be careful.
Today was going to be wondrous.
As the day came into full swing, music and laughter could be heard echoing across the fields, the sound filled the air. Mother was pleased as the first tiny wisps of snow began spiraling down to settle upon the earth. The old woman of Ranook House watched as the tiny white flakes drifted about on the air, stretching out her hand to as the came to rest in her wrinkled palm looking about.
There had been whispers that the old one in her younger days had almost been swallowed by the White Sea. That they had found her half frozen and half out of her mind, in nothing but her slip and fur boots, rambling on about ‘Him’, that he had called to her and called to her.
For days she laid in a fever her dreams plagued by white demons. Some say she had died and then come back to life, others said that she was mad with grief. I rose and wandered over to her and sat at her knees laying my head against her leg.
“Old woman, tell me a story”.
Without even looking at me she placed her soft wrinkly hand on my head and stroked my hair.
“Stories are for the youngun’s, but I remember you”. Sighing heavily like the weight of the world was on her shoulders she began her story.
“It wasn’t always like this. What you see here now, dancing, singing. In much older times things were very different, very different indeed’. As she spoke the noise that surrounded us began to fade.
“Winter she had been cruel that time. A force to be reckoned with she was. We never knew what had made her so angry, but she screamed and raged for 2 full moon cycles. An endless onslaught she set upon us she did. We had lost a few to the shivers both old and young, but eventually she had run out of steam and rested gathering her strength back”.
“It was a sad time, as one of the youngun’s who died was Zedrick’s heir and only son. His keening could be heard throughout our small lands, some say you could hear him from the furtherest reaches of the Laakum Forest that surrounds the south side of our village. A keening so full of misery and suffering, your own heart would ache along with him at the loss of his boy. Aye. . .was a sad, sad time”.
In my mind I could see a man kneeling in the snow, holding the limp body of a boy, head thrown back howling with grief, his body racked with pain cradling the lifeless shell that was once his son.
“There was no appeasing Zedrick. His pain knew no bounds, only a depth that would not let him find his way back from the darkness he had slipped into. Aaia, our Mistress of Suffering had embraced and claimed him. The Maldarn House had lost its only heir and now their Leader, their fate had been sealed. Without a Head to lead them they had no choice but to integrate into another House and become no more. The House of Maldarn had fallen.”
Around us people swayed, roared with laughter, danced, ate and drank, yet here next to the old woman that was not what I could see. She spoke of harshness, of abandonment, of sorrow and of pain. There would be no end to the man’s suffering only more darkness than any man should have to endure.
“I was only a little girl, no more than six maybe seven winters old. The light had not bid welcome to anyone for many moons now, in the House of Maldarn. Its hearth cold and dusted from no use, the windows forever dark only ever reflected back your own face. We dared not step foot into that house for our mamas would tell us that the broken man may come back and take us.”
“When night fell you could hear poor dear Zedrick pacing about in the snow, calling out to his son. Sometimes he would tap at your window and plead for his son back; sometimes he would just stare in not really seeing anything. But if you were brave enough to open your eyes, all you would see was a white demon breathing its frost ridden breath onto the window. Beautiful as she was, our white grace had found another lover”.
For a long time we sat, me at her knees and the old woman on her chair unmoving caught in our own world. “Why is it called ‘The Giving’?
“Because child, we plunder the gifts that Mother gives us without even a thought or a prayer of thanks, so it was deemed by our ancestors that we give back to her, in hope that she will be merciful when her child comes to visit. But sometimes her children take more than we offer; sometimes our gifts are not enough. She has many faces, and when she comes for you there is no escape. I barely with my life intact made it back from the edge. But when she came, she came as ‘Him’. Skin white as the snow flakes that fall, lips red as blood, and eyes like that of the frozen blue lakes. Out of the wind he stepped holding out his hand, telling me to go with him, telling me he loved me”
“His hair was a mane of pure white gold, trailing down his back coming to rest at his feet. His beauty was like nothing I had ever seen before. I thought this cannot be real, so I closed my eyes tight and opened them again only to see him still standing in front of me, still holding out his hand to me. His lips moved but his words I heard more in my head then by my ears. All I wanted was to go with him, to be with him forever but now. . .here I sit an old woman with nothing but memories.”
The sadness that filled her voice made my soul feel hollow and empty. This was the man I had seen in my dreams and I had felt the same thing. I turned my head to look up into the old woman’s face to find tears silently falling from her eyes. “Go child. Go celebrate her arrival. There will be no more stories today”
I left the old woman to sit alone with her sadness, to sit alone with her memories and joined in with the festivities that ran late into the night forgetting most of what she had told me, laughing, dancing, and singing along with the others.
Yes, Winter was here and we rejoiced.
The following morning we awoke to the ground covered in a fresh white blanket, crisp, and blinding, it was magnificent, but only to be marred by a scream. People had gathered by something that lay in the snow. Frowning I made my way to where they were gathering and pushed my way forward to see what it was that had pulled a scream from a shaking child’s mouth and drawn the sharp muffled gasps of others.
There laying on her side in just her slip and fur boots lay the old woman, her hair wet, clinging to her face and body, streaked with grays and whites, her face wrinkled with age yet peaceful and her arm stretched out as if she had been reaching for something. Her white prince had come and she had gladly gone. Wiping a tear from my face I moved out of the crowd and slowly walked away.
Then I heard it, soft yet audible, ‘Senaleth’.